Opinion: Inclusive excellence must be about the desegregation of power
Black AU students are heirs of racial inequity
University President Sylvia Burwell recently distributed the university administration’s six-month update to the Plan for Inclusive Excellence, AU’s diversity and inclusion strategy. What is noticeably absent from the update and the plan in general is information that would contextualize the campus climate that made the Inclusive Excellence plan necessary.
Put plainly, the plan lacks bonafide introspection. It positions our campus climate and racial climate as a series of unfortunate, random events, of which no one and nothing can be assigned blame. In its current form, Inclusive Excellence benefits from the idea that issues of race are aberrations, or unusual, in the educational system. But this idea that AU’s existence is race-neutral ignores its very construction on the oppression of African-Americans. Whether directly or indirectly, AU, as a matter of undisputed fact, has ties to the race-based enslavement of African-American peoples in the United States.
Therefore, if the very physical and narrative construction of the University has roots (quite literally) in the subjugation of African-American people, it is negligent to start inquiry at any other point than the inception of the University.
Earlier this year, through an email, I raised the following question with Burwell: what makes Inclusive Excellence different from previous iterations of diversity initiatives?
Her response read, “While I can’t speak to all of AU’s past efforts, I can tell you how I want this plan to be different.” Burwell noted the strategy’s clarity, its actionable goals and lines of accountability. I support these points entirely as well as the work of Dr. Fanta Aw, the vice president of campus life and inclusive excellence, and her team.
However, I believe that university administrators should be held to the same standards, if not higher, that they hold students. The original “Inclusive Excellence” plan is positioned as a response to Burwell’s year-long listening tour and the past few years of poor campus climate data demonstrating that black students feel completely isolated from AU’s community. The plan decontextualizes this data as if it is not connected to AU’s history of racial conflict.
These are peak examples of academic dishonesty, erasing decades worth of evidence to fit a false narrative. AU must conduct deep inquiry into its racial climate that is situated in its history and evidence. Regardless of whether the inequity is the direct fault of the administration, current or past, it is still our AU experience.
The Association of American Colleges and Universities, of which Inclusive Excellence is a recent initiative, lists “historical legacy of inclusion or exclusion” as a key component of improving campus climate. Without this component, any efforts to address structural racism could be considered incomplete. Though AU’s archival information, detailing racial strife on campus ranging from sit-ins to representation to targeted racism, is readily available. It seems like the University does not want to air out this history, except for in limited blips of acknowledgement that absolve AU of blame for institutionalized discrimination.
We know that American University was founded by John Fletcher Hurst, a Methodist leader who also inherited and owned slaves. We know AU was a de facto segregated university, with university administrators voicing strong opposition to integration and interracial relationships, according to university archives I reviewed last year. The Eagle’s archives show Dr. Aw herself working for “inclusive education” in the 1990s. In the early 2000s, there were reports of racially-motivated incidents, including postering incidents and racial profiling — the same issues that affect students today.
Post-integration, Blacks comprised 3 percent of the School of Public Affairs, the only school AU had in 1936. This was an early break from separate but equal doctrine, but still without any clear commitments to ensuring the equal aspect. Today, the University has scaled to accommodate thousands of students. And yet, Blacks comprise a meager 7 percent in the vat of buttermilk that is our student population. Scaled, AU doesn’t look much different from when it integrated, compositionally nor structurally.
Beyond the question of how many Black students are “enough” Black students, we must ask what does this history mean for students, particularly Black students, today?
At its core, the evidence demonstrates that while AU has desegregated, the centers of power remain disproportionately white at AU despite purported efforts to increase diversity at the University. Racial desegregation of space without equitable distribution of power is simply the “separate but equal doctrine” by another name. It is not a matter of the volume of Black students (or faculty) but rather the ability of Black people to project influence and power.
The evidence leads to the logical conclusion that AU’s composition, as a private white institution, or PWI, is a testament to a historical legacy of exclusion. From there, it is a key lead into understanding specific, Black issues like the scarce amount of resources and space for Black students. Lastly, it situates the fact that 67 percent of Black students reported in 2017 that they do not feel a sense of belonging in the classroom, campus and community in a historical and ongoing narrative.
For those reasons, the University cannot afford to forget its segregated roots. They are key to understanding and introducing equity into our campus climate. They entitle us with the responsibility to avoid burying our heads in any idea that positions our University as a place of neutral, non-racial engagement, as a divide to be addressed through “civil” dialogue.
The Plan for Inclusive Excellence insists, with offensive reckless abandon, that the Black AU community endure deeply life-compromising, symbolic and historical violence for the sake of idealism, some inclusive excellence that they have never seen.
For our purposes, it ought to instead be about the desegregation of power, a process of unlearning Whiteness and privilege. Our racial climate will not be fixed by engaging and the bringing in of difference, namely Black identity or perspectives, but rather the rooting out the ingrained normalcy of Whiteness that has guided its construction.
This is the question that must be asked, over and over again, in order to resolve our greatest challenges at the University: What would American University be like today if Black people were historically part of the decision-making?
Nickolaus Mack is a senior in the School of Public Affairs and The Eagle’s managing editor for opinion.